Sami Himmelfarb is 17. Charles Schwartz is 77. And although the two have never met, they’ve gotten to know each other pretty well. They’re pen pals, connected through Adas Israel Congregation in Washington.
The pen pal program was created to give teens something to do after many summer activities were canceled due to the pandemic, according to Rae Grad, chair of the synagogue’s Hesed Committee.
“Over the summer, it was very evident that our teenagers in particular were truly bereft. They lost their opportunity to go to camp. They lost their opportunity to do typical summer programs,” Grad said. “So we thought, what can we do with these teenagers? What would be something that would fulfill them and create community? And so we came up with this idea of pen pals, which we’ve never done before.”
Eleven teens were paired with 11 seniors to correspond by handwritten letter. Sami, a senior at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, and Schwartz, a retired lawyer living in Chevy Chase, said they exchange one or two letters a month.
Sami sent the first letter in June, introducing herself to Schwartz, who did the same in his response. Much of their writing at first focused on getting to know each other. But the correspondence soon shifted to everyday life.
“We’ve talked about not being able to go to synagogue, doing things virtually with the synagogue and things like that,” Schwartz said. “So they’re not long letters, but we respond fairly quickly to each other. And I’ve enjoyed it as the conversations have developed.”
Sami wrote of her experience on her school’s tennis team and the things she has learned in class about Judaism. Schwartz has written about his work, his childhood and his previous life in New York.
“So we’ve really been able to relate to each other, both with our interests, but also just sharing feelings of difficulties with the pandemic and how we both missed being at synagogue for the High Holidays or seeing our family,” Sami said. “And it’s nice to have someone to talk to about that, that’s from a different generation and brings a new perspective that can also relate to your feelings and provide insight into how to cope.”
Sami said a handwritten letter is a new experience for her. The process forces her to think about every word she’ll say, as it takes effort to write and there’s no delete button. It’s an art she’s come to find value in.
“I think people really appreciate getting a handwritten note in the mail,” Sami said. “It feels much more personal. I think the veteran members would appreciate it because it’s more nostalgic and something they value. And the teens, it’d be kind of a new experience for them.”
Adas Israel’s Rabbi Aaron Alexander said the pen pal program is a great way to connect members of the congregation at a time where social distancing is keeping them physically apart.
“Campaigns and programs like this are crucial. We fundamentally believe all deserve human connection. And because of that, it places an obligation on us to meet that particular human need,” Alexander said. “There is a particular delight in opening up a piece of mail and seeing another human being’s handwriting. It’s an experience that brings a little bit of unique joy into people’s lives.”
Sami and Schwartz said they plan to continue corresponding for the near future. That could end when Sami goes to study in Israel next year.
“What people are getting out of [the pen pal program] is a sense of connection,” Grad said. “It seems to be working.”